Girard's choice to focus on the tension between idealistic movements and pragmatic politics continues a encouraging trend in recent biographies ... From the outset, Girard is determined to draw out Louverture's complexities and contradictions, to portray him as a political pragmatist—neither the hero of racial egalitarians' dreams nor the monster of anxious American and European caricatures—driven nonetheless by his own ego, hubris, and desires. Girard's writing is straightforward and only lightly decorous—much the opposite of the man he portrays—but what he sometimes lacks in style Girard more than makes up for in his ability to integrate a wide range of subjects into an accessible, fascinating historical biography. Girard writes with an inviting, understated confidence that feels welcoming, especially to newcomers to Louverture and Haitian history.
The book is superb, though perhaps not in every way. And the greatest of its virtues is to stand knowledgeably and disputatiously in the shadow of its predecessor, the first of the extensively researched books in English, which was The Black Jacobins, from 1938, by C.L.R. James, the West Indian Marxist. The Black Jacobins was more than superb. It was a masterpiece. But 1938 was long ago ... L’Ouverture nonetheless showed himself to be those men’s superior, philosophically, politically and militarily — a point made by C.L.R. James that survives mostly intact in Philippe Girard’s sophisticated and anti-mythological biography.
[Giraed] takes a decidedly critical view of the revolutionaries, starting with Louverture. He shows the greatest sympathy for Louverture when recounting the man’s service as a loyal French officer. Elsewhere, he is considerably more critical. Indeed, at points he comes close to blaming Louverture, and his moves toward independence from France, for some of the most tragic aspects of Haiti’s subsequent history ... The book draws on the most recent scholarship, including fascinating new revelations about its protagonist’s family life ... When confronting the gaps in the record, Girard mostly resorts, like his predecessors, to speculation ... Girard’s is certainly the most up-to-date scholarly treatment and provides a useful guide to the Haitian Revolution’s fearsome complexities, but ultimately his ungenerous portrait of Louverture is simply not convincing.